Last weekend, Disney debuted another highly anticipated installment of the Star Wars saga. Many critics and fans are raving about the way it harnesses the latest technology to push familiar characters into innovative new directions, but some may find it lacks a certain essential element.
No, I'm not talking about The Last Jedi – though all of the above applies to the recently released Episode VIII – but rather Secrets of the Empire, an all-new virtual reality experience at the Disney Springs shopping complex.
The last time I wrote about VR, I was burnt out on the emerging interactive medium after an onslaught of underwhelming experiences at November's IAAPA convention. However, immediately after publishing that piece, I was given a demonstration of Zero Latency's latest multi-player software at their Pointe Orlando location. My first encounter with the V-Play installation at Main Event Entertainment in 2016 was an eye-opener as to the technology's potential, and their new "Outbreak Origins" zombie game showed further improvement in almost every aspect.
Zero Latency's chief competitor is the Void, which created the acclaimed Ghostbusters VR for Madame Tussauds in New York City. Now that "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" (which comes from a collaboration between the Void and ILMxLAB) has opened to the public at Walt Disney World, which attraction is worth your time and money? Here's a head-to-head comparison of the two hottest electronic adventures in town.
Zero Latency players begin in a briefing area at the back corner of Main Event's arcade, where they are suited up and instructed in the use of their equipment by a live guide, who thoroughly explains the game's rules and objectives. At the Void, guests first sign a lengthy legal disclaimer before being led into a surprisingly utilitarian orientation area. A video introduction featuring Capt. Cassian (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) establishes the game as a prequel to Rogue One, but does little to explain why you're dressed as Stormtroopers, an important plot point that left several of my fellow players confused.
Both experiences rely on 3-D helmets and motion-tracking sensors to immerse you in the digital world, and each system has its own advantages. Zero Latency's helmets felt a bit better balanced on my head, and boast a slightly wider field of view, though they are prone to fogging up in the heat of battle. The Void's technology does a tremendous job of capturing hand motions down to individual finger twitches, but its headsets lack adequate focus adjustments, forcing me to wear my glasses underneath the goggles.
AUDIO & VISUALS
Neither game's graphics can compete yet with the CGI seen in cinemas, but the visuals are more than adequate to create an involving experience. The Void does a great job of capturing the look and sound of the classic Star Wars films, from the architecture of the Imperial base to the beeping of a scurrying MSE-6 mouse droid, though up-close objects appear a bit pixelated. Zero Latency's aesthetics resemble a last-generation console game, but the somewhat clunky character models and the soundtrack of gunshots and grunts are adequate for getting your adrenaline pumping.
Since Zero Latency offers multiple programs, its playing space is simply an open warehouse, with no actual obstacles or objects inside the arena other than the players and their guns. The Void, being custom-built only for Secrets of the Empire, shines by employing physical sets – including walls, furniture and props – allowing for analog interactions with the digital environment. Your immersion is enhanced by wind, heat, water, shaking floors and even a vibrating vest (so you can feel it when you're shot with a laser), further blurring the line between the virtual and actual.
Unfortunately, this is where the Void turns toward the Dark Side. During Zero Latency's eight-player mission, I felt like I was inside a well-designed first-person shooter; a variety of environments and weapons to explore, along with the ability to coordinate anti-undead tactics with my squadmates, lent a sense of agency to our experience. Secrets of the Empire is more like a video game's tutorial level, leading four players by the nose through a series of set pieces with no illusion of free will, nor even feedback on whether you did well or not. While Zero Latency's firefights are frantic 360-degree onslaughts that had me scrambling around the room, the Void only offers static shooting galleries where you stand still blasting away at distant foes.
While the Void, which costs $29.95 per person, is advertised as a 30-minute experience, less that half that is spent inside the VR world. Zero Latency charges $25 for its 15-minute games, or $50 for half-hour programs like "Outbreak Origins," and offers 15 percent discounts with online reservations. The bottom line is that I exited Zero Latency exhausted but elated, while the Void ended just as it was getting good, leaving me wanting more. Much like the new film, Secrets of the Empire is a must-see for fanboys, but they shouldn't expect it to fulfill all their Force fantasies.